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I Didn’t Believe That It Was Possible To Quit Smoking. 5 Powerful Voices Changed My Mind

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TNC logoEditor’s Note: With #TobaccoNotCool, Youth Ki Awaaz and WHO India have joined hands to shed light on India's silent tobacco epidemic, which is claiming nearly 1 million lives every year. Join the campaign to discuss how tobacco consumption is a threat to India's development goals and take the message ahead to thousands!

I have been surrounded by smokers since college, despite having never smoked myself. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, to get smokers to quit through pressure. So naturally, when I walked into a seminar about tobacco prevention and more importantly, solutions for addiction, I wasn’t expecting much, to be perfectly honest.

But I was pleasantly surprised (to say the least!) when I encountered a helpful, informative and warm panel of experts, who brought the harsh reality of tobacco consumption and its consequences to life.

Here are some highlights from the seminar:

Sumitra Pednekar, Anti-tobacco activist

An impassioned speaker, Sumitra Pednekar’s work led the movement against the gutka ban in Maharashtra, in 2012.

Despite being a non-smoker herself, Ms. Pednekar talked about she how has been surrounded by smokers throughout her life and how she actually lost many people in her life to smoking: everyone from her grandfather to her husband, the late Satish Pednekar, Maharashtra’s former Home and Labour Minister.

She especially recounted how Tata Cancer Hospital had become her second home for one and a half years after her husband was diagnosed with throat cancer, giving her a heartbreaking look at the dangers of smoking. But this helped her realise how smoking has been deeply normalised as ‘cool’ in many societies.

This is something I connected with, since I realised that even I’ve stopped thinking of smokers as people who could be addicts. This, despite the fact that so many people I have grown up with have nonchalantly remarked to me that it’s their 7th cigarette of the day and that they were actually cutting back!

Vineet Gill Munish, Technical Officer, WHO Country Office for India

Through her insightful talk, Vineet Gill Munish focused on WHO’s role in tobacco control and how tobacco use impacts the economy and overall development.

Her talk was important in busting some important myths about how e-cigarettes and sheeshas are considered ‘safe’, but they actually aren’t. It reminded me of all the times I’ve been to hookah bars with friends and my questions about safety have been laughed off because “it’s totally safe yaar, it’s not like cigs.” But that’s the crux of the matter, hookahs (and e-cigs and other equally ‘safe’ alternatives) have dangers of their own.

For example, it’s not necessarily true that e-cigarettes do not lead to harmful diseases like cancer. They often contain heavy metals like chromium and lead, and prolonged use may ultimately lead to cancer and other equally harmful diseases.

And if you’re turning to e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking – here’s a myth buster: they won’t. E-cigarettes contain nicotine (as do cigarettes) which is a highly addictive substance in its own right.

Aditi Kaul, Counselling Psychologist, and Dr. Bhavuk Garg Consultant Psychiatrist – Fortis Healthcare

We all know about people who get addicted to tobacco, but how does it start? Is it just peer pressure, or something else? Psychologist Aditi Kaul and Dr. Bhavuk Garg provided this much needed perspective, shedding light on the different forces which may lead a person to a form of escapism, like smoking.

We may blame the people who smoke (or consume tobacco in different forms), and yet this practice will not cease until the cause of it is tackled. As Ms. Kaul pointed out, hardly anyone who smokes doesn’t know that it’s harmful. And yet they are driven to it, often from a very young age. And reasons can greatly vary from stress to depression to peer pressure, and they all need to be addressed because they lead to escapism which can manifest as different forms of addiction (whether drugs, alcohol, smoking or others).

This is especially important in the case of adolescents, where stresses (like exams, tuitions) are often dismissed as a part and parcel of growing up. But they shouldn’t be, especially not if it affects mental and physical health. It’s not enough to just condemn smoking, if we’re not trying to find the cause in the first place.

Vijay Simha, Sobriety Campaigner and Media Editor

This was the talk which stood out in the entire evening for me. As I mentioned before, everyone I knew who smoked (or consumed tobacco) around me knew all the risks of smoking… and did it anyway. Because it’s so hard to break out of the addiction, and even the habit.

Thus, to hear from the point of view of a someone who has seen the harshest side of addiction, is both revealing and thought-provoking. To quote Mr. Simha, “It took me 28 years to get off of tobacco!” He narrated his story of how he started at the age of 15 and then found himself, years later, at his lowest point scrounging for cigarette butts on the road, just to catch a smoke. But the important part of his story was the moment of he knew he was addicted. As he said, “My world had changed. I now knew what ‘magic’ was.” And that magic was a heady combination of peer pressure, forbidden desire and more. And years later, when he was driven to quit, he found himself trying over and over again. And quit he did, but not without a long and hard fight.

His story is not only living proof that to be an addict is not to be an addict forever, but also deeply relatable and human at the core. The message was simple: With willpower (and help) it’s completely possible to quit. Don’t give up. He didn’t.

I walked in a skeptic and I walked out a thoroughly convinced person. I still don’t know if I can convince a friend to not consume tobacco all by myself, but I can be a lot more than that aloof, disapproving person I was before. I can understand where they’re coming from and how to help them break the habit without trying to just guilt them. I have the resources to show them, to help them make up their own minds. And that, according to me, is just fantastic.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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